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Rescuers unable to save whales

August 11, 2009|From Times Wire Services

HOLLYWOOD, FLA. — Rescuers worked desperately to save a whale and her calf that had beached themselves in south Florida on Monday, but despite measures that included using wet towels and umbrellas to shield the animals from the scorching sun, neither survived.

Hundreds of beachgoers, many in tears, watched the frantic effort.

The drama began about 1 p.m. when swimmers and lifeguards spotted the whales in waist-deep water at Hollywood beach, just north of Miami.

Swimmers tried to encourage the whales back out to sea, and at first the animals seemed to take the hint. But the mother swam in circles, then headed back to shore.

A team of marine mammal specialists tried to save the distressed animals, which experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration identified as beaked whales.

The mother was about 10 to 12 feet long. The calf was about half that size.

Some placed towels on the whales, trying to keep their skin moist. Volunteers waded into the water and held umbrellas over the animals to shield them from the sun.

A summertime crowd of about 300 tourists and residents watched.

Some children seemed to know that the story would end badly.

"Mom, don't take a picture," said Danielle Zachary, 9, of Aventura, Fla. "It's too sad."

She and her mother, Michelle, 42, stayed at the beach as the drama unfolded.

As the mother whale thrashed on the shore, the calf was brought next to her. Soon she lay still.

Blair Mase, a stranding coordinator for NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, confirmed that she had died. A NOAA marine mammal specialist euthanized the calf on the sand next to its mother.

Some in the crowd had hoped that rescuers would try to save the calf, perhaps by putting it in an aquarium. But Mase said that the calf would have been unable to live without its mother, and that beaked whales normally do not survive in captivity.

"There's no aquarium that has this species in captivity," he said.

But that didn't console many beachgoers.

"I have tears in my eyes," said Eileen Vulpis of Coral Springs. "Everyone here is upset; everyone really thought they were going to try to save the baby."

Beaked whales, native to the Florida coast, are deep feeders, officials said. For them to have come to shore in the first place was a major sign of distress. Their survival was questionable from the start, Mase said.

Whales can beach themselves for a variety of reasons, Mase said, including climate conditions; disorientation after hearing a loud noise; sickness; and parasites. Experts will perform necropsies on both whales, he said.

Some in the crowd were parents trying to explain to their children what was happening.

"Whales tear at our heartstrings," Mase said.

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